Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Jazzobit: Frankie Laine

The family of Frankie Laine have announced his death.

Laine was born Paolo LoVecchio in 1913, to a father who would sometimes cut Al Capone's hair. Growing up in Chicago, Paolo sang for church and school choirs, but first made headway as a performer at Chicago's notorious Merry Garden venue. Laine hadn't been supposed to be singing - his role at the venue had been as a dance instructor, but he'd been tempted on stage during a break. Laine didn't realise at first how popular he was:

"Soon I found myself on the main bandstand before this enormous crowd. I was really nervous but I started singing 'Beside an Open Fireplace,' a popular song of the day. It was a sentimental tune and the lyrics choked me up. When I got done, the tears were streaming down my cheeks and the ballroom became quiet. I was very nearsighted and couldn't see the audience. I thought that the people didn't like me."

It turned out, though, the audience had fallen silent because they'd been transfixed by Laine's music. The management signed him up, and before long he'd been sent to Baltimore to host a Merry Garden dance marathon on tour.

In 1937, Laine heard that Perry Como had been planning to quit The Ted Weems Orchestra. Hoping to take Como's role in the band, Laine sounded Perry out, only to discover that Como had changed his mind. However, Como made an offer:
Como apologized and said, "Would you like to go to Cleveland? I can make a call and maybe get you a job."

So it was that Frankie - still trading as Frank LoVecchio - found himself in Ohio, filling a role with the Freddy Carlone band that Como had held a year before.

However, two weeks into his new job, Carlone sacked everyone due to poor ticket sales. Broke and stuck in Cleveland, Laine managed to get another gig, singing at The Ace of Clubs. That lasted a week before the place was razed to the ground.

You'd start to think you were jinxed, wouldn't you?

A few sightly longer lasting singing jobs came and went, and by wartime, Frankie was working at Parker Appliance. It might not have been music, but Laine remembered it as having a major plus:
"The first week, I made 150 bucks, so I said, 'The hell with singing.'"

By 1943, though, he was keen to pick up his musical career, and got transferred to a Parker factory in California. It wasn't a successful move, and Laine saw his life bottoming out living on a diet of four chocolate bars a day while sleeping in Central Park.

A move back to Los Angeles started to bring some breaks - a friendship with Carl Fischer turned into a songwriting and musical partnership which would last until 1954; Hoagy Carmichael heard him singing at a nightclub which led to a deal with Mercury Records.

That's My Desire was to become his signature song at the time - recorded in his first session for Mercury, it went on to make it to number four in the pop charts, even although the song's writer supposedly didn't even recognise his work in Laine's version.

A string of hits followed, including Two Loves Have I, but it was when Mitch Miller came to Mercury as A&R man and spotted that Laine's voice could make him attractive to a wider market that Laine moved into the mainstream. Miller had himself made some pretty shameless singalong pop albums, and the pairing of Laine's gravitas with Miller's finger on the public gspot was a formidable proposition.

Miller jumped ship to Columbia in 1950; Laine remained at Mercury just long enough to see out his contract before moving with his mentor. The addition of Columbia's marketing muscle to the pairing of Miller and Laine made for a pop team unsurpassed until Parker, Presley and RCA came together, and produced an astonishing number of records (39) achieving enormous sales. Amongst these was The Kid's Last Fight, a track which would make a deep, lasting impression on a young John Peel:
That [record] can still stand up in any company. Which is more than The Kid could do, of course.

In coronation year, Laine's I Believe went to the top of the UK singles charts, and stayed. And stayed, and stayed. Despite the best (or rather, worst) efforts of Bryan Adams and Wet Wet Wet, his run of eighteen weeks at number one remains unchallenged.

He flirted with other genres, releasing jazz, gospel, rock and folk albums. Frankie also tried his hand at acting, but while British audiences took to his work, it never found enough favour at home to allow him to give up the day job, and his connections to the movie and TV world were better served by his themes for Rawhide and Blazing Saddles and his regular Oscars mid-show numbers.

Frankie Laine also played his part in the civil rights movement, in a highly visible way. When the Nat King Cole show was in danger of going down due to the difficulty of attracting a sponsor for black-fronted entertainment, Laine made a point of guesting on the show, even waiving his usual fee. (The gesture, though, didn't entirely work - Cole left the show after a year, as sponsorship still proved elusive.)

Meanwhile, his music career developed along unconventional lines - an unhappy period at Capitol and a renaissance with ABC (yielding the hit Lord You Gave Me A Mountain amongst others) was followed by a move to Amos. This was a strategic decision, as Laine believed the smaller company would give him more room to experiment. It did, but it was also a bad commercial decision - Amos didn't have the cash to get behind his quirky, rock tinged albums, and the records flopped.

Laine moved to establish his own label, Score, which is still a going concern - albeit one most concerned with releasing Laine's back catalogue. His last record was a 9/11 benefit, Taps/My Buddy.

His career saw him much garlanded - he was even officially declared a "national treasure" by the US congress. Laine's first marriage, to Nan Grey, lasted from 1950 until her death in 1993; he's survived by his second wife, Marcia Ann Kline.

Frankie Laine died at the age of 93 on February 6th, 2007, from cardiovascular disease.